Lord Denning (23 January, 1899 - 6 March, 1999) was a British barrister from Hampshire who became Master of the Rolls (the senior judge in the Court of Appeal of England and Wales) and was generally well liked, both within the legal profession and outside it. Lord Denning was a judge for 38 years, retiring at the age of 83 in 1982.

Born Alfred Thompson Denning at Whitchurch in Hampshire in the UK the fourth of five sons of Charles Denning and his wife Clara. Lord Denning's father was a draper. His mother had been a school teacher. He was a graduate and honorary fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford University and the Inns of Court. He was called to the English bar in 1923, appointed a judge in 1944, a Justice of Appeal in 1948, a Lord of Appeal in 1957, and was Master of the Rolls from 1962 to 1982. He first married in 1932. His wife Mary died nine years later. He remarried in 1945 to Joan, who died in 1992.

He became well known for his judgements, which frequently pushed the law in novel directions. Even in his early career his decision in the now world renowned High Trees case: Central London Property Trust Ltd. v. High Trees House Ltd. [1947] K.B. 130 brought him into forefront of judicial reasoning for his innovative approach to legal reasoning when he developed the principle of equitable estoppel as applied to contract law.

Denning spent twenty years as the Master of the Rolls, presiding over the Court of Appeal, after five years as a Law Lord, shifting to the Court of Appeal at his request because he was happier with that post than a post in the more senior court. Court of Appeal judges sit in threes, and the Lords in fives (or more) so it was suggested that to get his way in the Court of Appeal Denning only had to persuade one other judge - in the House of Lords it was two. The other benefit of the Court of Appeal is that it hears more cases than the House of Lords and so has a greater effect on the law. Of his move down the legal hierarchy, Denning quipped, "To most lawyers on the bench, the House of Lords is like heaven. You want to get there someday - but not while there is any life in you". The last sitting UK judge not bound by a mandatory retirement age,he was forced to retire after remarks interpreted as racially insensitive though generally understood not to have indicated such feelings.

Whatever the truth of it, Lord Denning became immensely popular for his judgements which often bent the law into interesting directions, and his unusually prosaic style in giving judgement. Examples of some opening lines, or opening paragraphs, from five of Denning's judgments are set out below:

  • 1. Try this for use of alliteration: "This is a case of a barmaid who was badly bitten by a big dog": Cummings v. Granger (1977) 1 All E.R. 104, 106;

  • 2. "It happened on April 19, 1964. It was bluebell time in Kent." Hinz v. Berry (1970) 2 Q.B. 40, 42;

  • 3. "Old Peter Beswick was a coal merchant in Eccles, Lancashire. He had no business premises. All he had was a lorry, scales, and weights. He used to take the lorry to the yard of the National Coal Board, where he bagged coal and took it round to his customers in the neighbourhood. His nephew, John Joseph Beswick, helped him in his business. In March 1962, old Peter Beswick and his wife were both over 70. He had had his leg amputated and was not in good health. The nephew was anxious to get hold of the business before the old man died. So they went to a solicitor, Mr. Ashcroft, who drew up an agreement for them." Beswick v. Beswick (1966) Ch. 538;

  • 4. "To some this may appear to be a small matter, but to Mr. Harry Hook, it is very important. He is a street trader in the Barnsley Market. He has been trading there for some six years without any complaint being made against him; but, nevertheless, he has now been banned from trading in the market for life. All because of a trifling incident. On Wednesday, October 16, 1974, the market was closed at 5:30. So were all the lavatories, or 'toilets' as they are now called. They were locked up. Three quarters of an hour later, at 6:20, Harry Hook had an urgent call of nature. He wanted to relieve himself. He went into a side street near the market and there made water, or 'urinated' as it is now said. No one was about except one or two employees of the council, who were cleaning up. They rebuked him. He said: 'I can do it here if I like'. They reported him to a security officer who came up. The security officer reprimanded Harry Hook. We are not told the words used by the security officer. I expect they were in language which street traders understand. Harry Hook made an appropriate reply. Again, we are not told the actual words, but it is not difficult to guess. I expect it was an emphatic version of 'You be off'. At any rate, the security officer described them as words of abuse. Touchstone would say that the security officer gave the 'reproof valiant' and Harry Hook gave the 'counter-check quarrelsome'; As You Like It, Act V, Scene IV. On Thursday morning the security officer reported the incident. The market manager thought it was a serious matter. So he saw Mr. Hook the next day, Friday, October 18. Mr. Hook admitted it and said he was sorry for what had happened. The market manager was not satisfied to leave it there. He reported the incident to the chairman of the amenity services committee of the Council. He says that the chairman agreed that 'staff should be protected from such abuse'. That very day the market manager wrote a letter to Mr. Hook, banning him from trading in the market." Ex Parte Hook (1976) 1 W.L.R. 1052, 1055;

  • 5. "In summertime village cricket is a delight to everyone. Nearly every village has its own cricket field where the young men play and the old men watch. In the village of Lintz in the County of Durham they have their own ground, where they have played these last 70 years. They tend it well. The wicket area is well rolled and mown. The outfield is kept short. It has a good clubhouse for the players and seats for the onlookers. The village team plays there on Saturdays and Sundays. They belong to a league, competing with the neighbouring villages. On other evenings they practice while the light lasts. Yet now after these 70 years a judge of the High Court has ordered that they must not play anymore. He has issued an injunction to stop them. He has done it at the instance of a newcomer who is no lover of cricket. This newcomer has built, or has had built for him, a house on the edge of the cricket ground which four years ago was a field where cattle grazed. The animals did not mind the cricket, but now this adjoining field has been turned into a housing estate. The newcomer bought one of the houses on the edge of the cricket field. No doubt the open space was a selling point. Now he complains that when a batsman hits a six the ball has been known to land in his garden or on or near his house. His wife has got so upset about it that they always go out at weekends. They do not go into the garden when cricket is being played. They say that this is intolerable. So they asked the judge to stop the cricket being played. And the judge, much against his will, has felt that he must order the cricket to be stopped: with the consequence, I suppose, that the Lintz Cricket Club will disappear. The cricket ground will be turned to some other use. I expect for houses or a factory. The young men will turn to other things instead of cricket. The whole village will be much poorer. And all this because of a newcomer who has just bought a house there next to the cricket ground." Miller v. Jackson (1977) Q.B. 966, 976.

Many of Denning's efforts to change the law were vindicated by the passage of time (and legislation) – in particular, his efforts to establish an abandoned wives' equity, small print exemption clauses, inequality of bargaining power, negligent mis-statement, liability of public authorities, and contractual interpretation.

He died a few months after celebrating his 100th birthday. Denning was too frail to attend his own 100th birthday party: at the event, Law Society President Michael Matthews said, "He was a towering figure in the law who made an enormous contribution to the law of this century, probably the major contribution". Eulogising Denning's death, a former Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, said that Denning would go down in history as "one of the great and controversial judges of the 20th century".